Confronting Our “Concealed Things”

Confronting Our “Concealed Things”

Sep 23, 2022 By Gordon Tucker | Commentary | Nitzavim | Rosh Hashanah | Yom Kippur

The concealed things concern the Lord our God; but with overt matters, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching. (Deut. 29:28)
There is, however, another reading of this verse, given by Nahmanides (Ramban), in the 13th century, and it is one that forces us to a certain deeper level of introspection at this time of year.

Here’s a paraphrase of what he says: The “concealed things” are not sins committed by others that are out of our view, and thus out of our control. Rather, they are the sins committed by us, but that are nevertheless out of our view and awareness. As long as we are not aware of them, they will be known only to God. But they are only out of our control because they are not known to us.

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Count Your Blessings

Count Your Blessings

Sep 16, 2022 By Burton L. Visotzky | Commentary | Ki Tavo

Ki Tavo is a Torah portion with three parts of interest. First, there are the curses and imprecations with which God threatens the Jewish people if we do not do God’s will. As we do when we read the Torah in synagogue, we will quickly and quietly move past the scary stuff.

Second, we are commanded to bring our first fruits to the Jerusalem Temple once we have settled the land. And then we are commanded to offer them to the priest in acknowledgement of God’s beneficence. When we do so, we recite a fixed liturgy, reinforced, no doubt, by hearing the many Israelites ahead of us in the line reciting the exact same words as the priest prompts them. “Repeat after me . . .” he says.
Arami oved avi—My ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” (Deut. 26:5)

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What Does the Torah Really Say about Cross-Dressing?

What Does the Torah Really Say about Cross-Dressing?

Sep 9, 2022 By Joy Ladin | Commentary | Ki Tetzei

Every year, Ki Tetzei returns us to the only verse of the Torah that seems to speak about transgender and nonbinary people, particularly about those like me who used to be known as “transsexuals,” people born physically male or female who identify so strongly with the opposite gender that we can only live authentically as that gender: A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is abhorrent to your God. (Num. 22:5)

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Prophets of Faith

Prophets of Faith

Sep 2, 2022 By Amy Kalmanofsky | Commentary | Shofetim

I often distinguish between faith and belief and consider myself to be a person of faith. Whereas belief implies a degree of certainty that I am uncomfortable with, faith embraces doubt. To my ear, the statement that I believe something to be true communicates that you know something is true. The statement that I have faith that something is true suggests that you desire or suspect something is true. Belief seems restrictive to me—confined by only what is known or can be known—and is at risk of dogmatism.

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The Meaning of Repetition, Repetition

The Meaning of Repetition, Repetition

Aug 26, 2022 By David Zev Moster | Commentary | Re'eh | Shabbat Rosh Hodesh

When it comes to reading the Tanakh, much is lost in translation, so even a bit of knowledge of Biblical Hebrew can go a long way. Here is one grammatical insight into this week’s parashah, Parashat Re’eh. According to Deuteronomy 14:22, Israelite farmers must tithe the produce of their field שָׁנָה שָׁנָה, shanah shanah, which […]

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Raising Children in a Land of Plenty

Raising Children in a Land of Plenty

Aug 19, 2022 By Gavriella Kornsgold | Commentary | Eikev

The book of Hosea captures the problem of human nature in Parashat Eikev when God proclaims, “I did know you in the wilderness, in the land of great drought. When they were fed, they became full; they were filled and their heart was exalted; therefore they have forgotten me” (Hos. 13:5–6). There are endless historical and contemporary examples that mirror this cycle, such as the immigrant parent who achieves worldly success and becomes worried about the spiritual well-being of their children. Or, to take a scene from popular culture, after the beloved Rocky wins the heavyweight boxing title, he succumbs to the lure of fame, spoils his child, and loses his edge—the eye of the tiger. A close reading of chapter eight in this week’s parashah teaches us how our tradition responds to the perennial problem of raising children in a land of plenty.

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Never Too Late to Get Close

Never Too Late to Get Close

Aug 12, 2022 By Benjy Forester | Commentary | Va'et-hannan

From a young age, I knew I was supposed to like Neil Young. The stereo was turned up whenever his signature falsetto voice came on the radio, and before my bar mitzvah I was taken to see the 2006 documentary concert/film Neil Young: Heart of Gold. My initiation was complete with my first Neil concert […]

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Moses’s Retirement Speech

Moses’s Retirement Speech

Aug 5, 2022 By Raymond Scheindlin | Commentary

Deuteronomy, which we begin reading this week, is devoted to Moses’s farewell to his people. Deuteronomy is preeminently Moses’s book; in it, Moses mostly speaks in his own voice, so that instead of the ever-recurring third-person opening line “And the Lord spoke to Moses . . .,” we read “The Lord spoke to me” (Deut. 2:2). Deuteronomy contains not one but a series of farewell speeches and prophetic poems in which Moses recalls the forty years since the Exodus from Egypt and looks ahead to the future in the promised land.

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Do Women’s Vows Count?: A 21st Century Problem

Do Women’s Vows Count?: A 21st Century Problem

Jul 29, 2022 By Stephanie Ruskay | Commentary | Masei | Mattot

In Parashat Mattot Chapter 30, we learn that if a woman makes a vow, her father or husband can invalidate it on the day on which he hears about it. If he does not invalidate it that day, he is culpable if she breaks it. The only women who can make their own vows and not have them invalidated by a man are divorcées and widows. At other moments in my life, I would have glossed over this section, determined to focus on something more inspiring, and less offensive. Now, I am leaning into it.

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The Liberator and the Zealot

The Liberator and the Zealot

Jul 22, 2022 By Eliezer B. Diamond | Commentary | Pinehas

In his recently published book, The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom,  H.W. Brands contrasts the attitudes of Brown and Lincoln toward slavery, and the methods used by each to end it. In doing so, he makes the case that the terms “liberator” and “zealot” accurately encapsulate the role of each in abolishing slavery.  

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The Thrill and the Terror of the Foreign Prophet

The Thrill and the Terror of the Foreign Prophet

Jul 15, 2022 By Aaron Koller | Commentary | Balak

Prophecy among the nations fascinated and terrified ancient Jews. It must exist: If there is only one God, God of the whole world, why should divine inspiration be limited to the members of one nation? There is no reason that God cannot speak with the Greeks through an oracle or the Arameans through seers just as he spoke to the Israelites through their prophets. But while prophecy among other peoples testifies to the universality and all-encompassing power of God, does it not also challenge the uniqueness of Israel?

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What if Moses Was Supposed to Hit the Rock?

What if Moses Was Supposed to Hit the Rock?

Jul 8, 2022 By Rabbi Ilana Zietman | Commentary | Hukkat

In trying to make sense of the infamous “Moses-hitting-the-rock” episode in this week’s parashah, one can find an overwhelming number of attempts to explain why Moses (and Aaron) are punished with the Divine decree that they will die before entering the Promised Land. It is a perfect example of “Turn it and turn it for all is in it” (Pirkei Avot 5:22). The catalyst for so much interpretive work is that here, God’s reason for punishing Moses and Aaron appears particularly unclear and therefore, unfair. 

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Your Authority Is an Illusion

Your Authority Is an Illusion

Jul 1, 2022 By Joshua Rabin | Commentary | Korah

Every time I read this parashah, the hypothetical questions I ponder are endless: What exactly is wrong about Korah’s critique of Moshe? Would the Israelites not make it to Canaan if they were led by someone else other than Moshe? However, a deeper exploration of the parashah reveals that our tradition wants us to focus less on the hypotheticals and more on the powerful statement about leadership made by choosing Moshe and rejecting Korah.

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Mapping our Love

Mapping our Love

Jun 22, 2022 By Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek | Commentary | Shelah Lekha

Moses had no idea what he was getting into.

It wasn’t just when he was talking to shrubbery and confronting tyrants at the beginning of his journey that he was in the dark about what his future held. Even deep into his leadership, even after he had weathered rebellion and despair, even after he had personal encounters with the Divine, he had no idea what was coming next.

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How Should One Shine One’s Light?

How Should One Shine One’s Light?

Jun 17, 2022 By Rabbi Luciana Pajecki Lederman | Commentary | Beha'alotekha

In the past few years, technology and social media specialists, neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers have been discussing the ubiquity of distraction in our modern lives. As Joshua Rothman puts it, “like typing, Googling, and driving, distraction is now a universal competency. We’re all experts” (The New Yorker, June 16, 2015). These specialists have been warning us about the personal perils of distraction to our learning, professional performance, financial stability, creativity, mental health, social skills and civic engagement, and even to our physical lives. And as should be expected, some suggest strategies to “reclaim attention” in this age of distraction. 

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Does God Speak?

Does God Speak?

Jun 10, 2022 By Benjamin D. Sommer | Commentary | Naso

The final verse of Parashat Naso is easy to miss. It comes after a long passage that describes the gifts the leader of each tribe presented at the Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting (both names are used for the structure) in the wilderness. Twelve times we read six verses listing the exact same set of items donated from each tribe. The substantial amount of repetition may lead readers to lose some focus as they move through the passage. But Numbers 7:89, the verse that comes right after those twelve sets of six verses, is highly significant. It provides crucial information about the nature of revelation as understood by the kohanim (Priests) who wrote this section of the Torah.

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Counting With the Full Severity of Compassion

Counting With the Full Severity of Compassion

Jun 3, 2022 By Beverly Bailis | Commentary | Bemidbar

Bemidbar, which opens the book of Numbers with a census in the wilderness, was going to be my son’s bar mitzvah parashah. His bar mitzvah had been scheduled for May 16, 2020, a date that coincided with the beginning of the 2020 US decennial census. Initially, the rather administrative biblical verses seemed dry and perfunctory: lists of names and numbers, first of a military census, followed by a census of the Levites, and then the family of Kohath, a Levite subclan. Yet as we became increasingly aware of the importance of these biblical censuses, we came to understand our own current moment and the 2020 census in a new light. Censuses capture a moment in time, as valuable points of data help to paint a picture of what a society is like, who we are as a nation, and our identity as a People

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The Blessings of Curses

The Blessings of Curses

May 27, 2022 By Ellie Gettinger | Commentary | Behukkotai

It is easy to see the last two years as a curse. A million people have died in the US alone; lives have been upended. We are in a constant state of emotional whiplash, responding to whatever new national emergency faces us. Reading the curses at the center of Parashat Behukkotai, I was struck by how chaos and lack of control presented within the tokhehah, or admonition, dovetails with the constant emotional disruption of the pandemic.

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The Limitations of Ownership

The Limitations of Ownership

May 20, 2022 By Yedida Eisenstat | Commentary | Behar

Rashi, the well-known medieval northern French biblical commentator, begins his commentary on this week’s parashah with a famous question, loosely paraphrased as follows: In what way does the matter of shemittah[the sabbatical year] have anything to do with Mount Sinai? In other words, the laws of Leviticus 25—beginning with the agricultural restrictions of the seventh year, the regulations regarding the jubilee year, limitations on sale of land and slaves—are wholly dependent on Israel living in Israel. So why, Rashi asks, were these laws commanded so long before they would become relevant? Of what relevance are the laws of shemittah to the Israelites at Sinai?

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For What Should I Compromise on Religious Observance?

For What Should I Compromise on Religious Observance?

May 13, 2022 By Alan Imar | Commentary | Emor

To what extent should we be flexible in our adherence to religious precepts, and to what extent can we remain steadfast in our commitment to certain principles, even if they exclude others? With this dilemma in mind, I want to consider the opening lines of this week’s parashah, which discuss cases where a priest may allow himself to receive tumat met (impurity from a corpse), something he is not usually permitted to do

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